Over the last half-decade or so, Mazda’s Miata has been enjoying something of a reboot of its reputation. Long derided as a car unfit for those packing chest hair, the new line is that it’s a hot, affordable little roadster that offers all of the joys of sports-car motoring without the headaches induced by owning something old and British or Italian. And when the cars were new, that was true.
The problem is that now, after 25-18 years on the road, those first-generation cars are old enough to be about as unreliable as an MGB, but harder and more expensive to fix. I’m going to throw a number out here.
That’s what I’ve spent just on repairing things that failed or were worn out on my NA Miata since buying it. And I found a pretty good one. It had been decently well-maintained, looked good and ran strong when I bought it. I knew it had a couple of issues (ratty top, noisy rear wheel bearing) even before I handed my money over, but compared to the other Miatas I’d found in my area and general price range, this was by far the best of the bunch. It wasn’t even the most expensive.
My choice back then was between buying this Miata outright with the insurance check from my beloved stolen Integra, gradually fixing it up, or use that money as a down payment on a used S2000 and tie myself to a monthly car payment. Since I wanted to be free to make career moves, and desperately wanted to leave Texas for good, I chose the former. It didn’t hurt that I felt the tossable, 2,100-lb. NA Miata was much more fun to drive everyday than the more formidable S2000.
I don’t exactly regret that decision. But it came with a price. And that $6,795 is a running tab. Running. Which is more than I can say for my Miata at the moment.
About a month ago I was happily cruising along on the 101 when I felt something odd. The engine bogged for about half a second going uphill near Calabasas. Felt like my left foot accidentally pushed the clutch pedal about 1/3 in, then let out. It didn’t do it again for a while, but after a few days the problem came back, stronger this time. Now it felt like hitting the rev limiter, despite being well below the 7,100-rpm fuel cut.
I went through the list of cheap and obvious suspects first. Replaced the fuel filter, the plugs, the wires. The problem was intermittent, and difficult to pin down, but it always came back. I had my local shop take another look at it, and they pulled a code, checked things out, and the only thing they could find was a dirty connection at the CAS, which they cleaned. The car ran beautifully for another two days.
Today, they pulled that same code again. Bad CAS signal. That could mean one of three things: Either I have a bad CAS, a bad ECU, or a shorting wire somewhere between those two. The cost, if I have the shop do the work, is near enough to $1,000 whether it’s the CAS or the ECU. And there’s no guarantee that it’s one and not the other, so I could conceivably waste a grand on replacing the wrong part.
Kinda makes me miss adjusting carbs and replacing points when I think about it.
And the joys of multiple aging electronic components is not the extent of the fun. The car is generally good, but the way it’s put together makes for some time-consuming repair jobs. For example, if I were to find I needed to replace my fuel tank, well, that would be extremely bad luck for me, because the fuel tanks on these cars are bolted in from both the top and bottom. You have to drop the entire rear subframe to do the job, and that’s not something most people want to tackle in a driveway.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love my car, and it’s still fantastic to drive, when it’s running right. And yeah, I’m impressed as all hell that these things commonly went 20+ years before the problems started cropping up. But old machinery and electronics eventually always fail, and now my car is about as reliable as a two-year-old Mercedes. The popular notion of NA Miatas as bulletproof does not fare well under the harsh light of reality.
You definitely want to drive one. But unless you 1, are are an experienced, competent wrencher with the tools and space to tackle most automotive work, and 2, have a very reliable second car, I do not recommend owning an early Miata. These cars are now borderline antiques, and they require care. And if you’re looking for something easy to introduce yourself to working on cars, almost anything from the carbureted era is going to be easier to diagnose and fix when problems arise.
For those of you who are interested, here’s the list of parts I’ve replaced to keep the car safe and running. This is by no means a complete list of what I’ve spent on the car, only the stuff that would make it dangerous or undriveable if neglected. Some of the work, I did myself. Some of it, I paid for. I’ve included the labor for which I paid in my total, but did not add anything for labor I performed myself.
New right rear wheel bearing
New flasher relay
New timing belt/water pump
New brakes (incl. rotors, pads, lines, master cylinder, and paint repair from leaking MC)
New right rear caliper (twice, first OEM Mazda replacement failed after 1 year)
New cursed water plug
New seatbelt receivers
New power steering pump
New PCV valve
New fuel filter
New springs (stock ones were soft and sagging)
New suspension bushings
New ball joints
New tie rod ends
New alignment bolts
Hours of diagnostic work